Feral cats’ devastating threat to native animals laid bare

To: Birding-Aus <>
Subject: Feral cats’ devastating threat to native animals laid bare
From: Peter Shute <>
Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2012 22:59:58 +1100
From today's Age:


THE rats never stood a chance. It took a pair of feral cats just four days to 
gobble an entire population of native pale field rats in a conservation 
enclosure on the edge of Arnhem Land. 

Scientists and ecologists have long suspected feral cats were partly to blame 
for the dramatic decline of native animals across northern Australia over the 
past 20 years. But preliminary results froma comprehensive study, funded by the 
Australian Research Council and led by the non-profit Australian Wildlife 
Conservancy, reveal just how devastating the predators can be. 

‘‘ We had strong suspicions they were an issue, but we really needed to confirm 
that,’’ said the conservancy’s head scientist, Dr Sarah Legge. 

Ona former cattle station turned wildlife sanctuary, the conservancy has built 
two 10-hectare enclosures, each divided into two plots, to conduct their study. 

One ‘‘ control’ ’ plot allowed feral cats access in and out, while the second 
‘‘ experimental’ ’ plot was surrounded by a six-metre electrified fence to keep 
cats out. 

Into each of the four plots, the group released about 20 pale field rats, which 
have been regionally extinct in Arnhem Land for about 15 years and had to be 
sourced from Quoin Island, off the Northern Territory coast. 

‘‘[ Then] we followed their fate,’’ said Dr Legge. 

It took feral cats about a month to find one of the control plots. When the 
researchers tried trapping the rats, or locating them by their radio collars a 
week later they found none. 

‘‘ Once the [cats] knew there was good feed in there, they were right into 
it,’’ said senior wildlife ecologist Dr Katherine Tuft. 

Motion sensor cameras had captured images of two cats, she said. ‘‘ Once they 
have decided there is something they like eating they put an awful lot of 
effort into getting the last rat,’’ said Dr Legge. ‘‘ I think that’s partly why 
they’ve been so devastating .’’ she said. 

While the rats in the second control plot survived better, the enclosure’s 
first feral cat arrived in late October. 

‘‘ So, we’ll have to wait and see what its done,’’ said Dr Tuft. 

Both the plots that excluded cats now have thriving rat populations that have 
produced young. The numbers of reptiles have also increased. 

While the preliminary results show the impact feral cats have on the small 
rodents, the researchers will also study whether the presence of cats prevents 
the recovery of the population. 

The research team, which includes scientists from CSIRO, the University of 
Tasmania and Charles Darwin University, plan to run the experiment for another 
year, and may introduce other native animals to the catfree plots. 

Copyright © 2012 Fairfax Media

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